Will pro-deal Labour MPs back Boris Johnson?

The 19 MPs who have vowed to honour the referendum result are already looking for ways out. 

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As news breaks that Boris Johnson has secured a Brexit deal with the EU, all talk turns to whether he will have the numbers to get it through parliament.  As things stand, the DUP won’t vote for it: that’s not only 10 votes lost, but potentially more, depending on how many ultra-committed Brexiteers, the self-described Spartans, will add to that number. That’s on one side of the scale; on the other side, are there enough Labour MPs to rebalance the numbers and give the Prime Minister a majority?

Well, maybe. Over the summer months, many in majority-Leave seats expressed utter trepidation at the prospect of going back to their seats for a general election before delivering Brexit, while others said they had come to regret not backing Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.  Responding to a growing Brexit fatigue in the country and a desire to break the deadlock, the mood seemed to be shifting, and in early September, a cross-party group called “MPs for a Deal”, led by the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, suggested that there were 50 Labour MPs who would vote for a deal.

With that figure of 50 long since forgotten, there is a core group of 19 Labour MPs who are possibilities for backing Johnson’s deal: those who signed a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk last week, encouraging the EU to reach an agreement and saying that the referendum result should be “honoured without delay”. (The 19 includes Kevin Barron and Jim Fitzpatrick, who are retiring and likely to vote for a deal. Not a signatory or included in the figure 19 is John Mann: he is now an independent, but is also one of those retiring and likely to back a deal.)  The 19 MPs did include caveats about the importance of protecting workers’ rights and environmental standards – which will be their argument for not backing a deal, if they decide not to – but the implication was clear: we are begging for a deal we can vote for.

Such has been their apparent desperation for a deal, many of them even made warm noises about Boris Johnson’s “two-border” proposals on customs for Northern Ireland, until they were given a slap-down by Irish Labour, and it sunk in that the Republic of Ireland and the EU would never accept those proposals anyway.  So far, so keen.

But now that they have a deal to vote on, the quiet caveats continue. Ruth Smeeth has repeated the letter's proviso on environmental policy and workers’ rights; Gloria de Piero, another signatory of the letter, said recently that: “at no point have I said I will back the Boris Johnson deal and the more details that emerge about it, the less likely I am to vote for it.” Everyone except retirign MPs will worry about losing the party whip, while balancing whether a failure to back a deal would result in losing their seat anyway. 

After months of agitating, and all of the interviews, tweets and press releases screaming that they want to back a deal, it seems like madness to me that the 19 MPs won't take the opportunity to vote for it. But this is politics, and they maybe still won't. 

If that's the case, it will be a baffling piece of political theatre to watch them climb down from it. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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